William Dunk, who lives in Chapel Hill, is an international business consultant and a frequent contributor to Local Tech Wire. The last time I saw John Gotti —

Well, actually it was the only time. Twelve or so years ago we were having an early dinner at Siracusa, an Italian favorite just above Astor Place on 4th Avenue and the Bowery. The restaurant was half-filled with couples who knew their caponata and avoided the glitzy places with formula food that were in the center of Manhattan. In wandered four gentlemen, who were seated in the northwest corner to the rear of the restaurant. The owner and waiters hovered over them, clearly attentive to every request.

Only gradually did we notice that the grayish haired fellow beside the wall was Don John Gotti, then the ruler of New York’s crime families. By then every patron in the establishment had melted away, and we were the only other party left. It was most pleasant: the four gentlemen from Queens were most discreet, and the atmosphere became quieter, more distinguished, a perfect end to another perfect meal.

Siracusa was a one-of-a kind restaurant. It was the secret in those days that all the very best Italian cafes were tucked away somewhere in camera below 14th Street, far from the East Side clip joints. Here the pasta was homemade, a favorite of mine being linguine bathed in a nearly black squid ink sauce. Likewise, the gelato was made on the premises by the brother who cooked, the other brother being the front man with the customers. The recipes, incidentally, all came from Mother who had imported tastes from their home in Sicily.

One felt silly eating at any of the better publicized Italian affairs in New York when you could have supreme food in a restrained, decorous eatery hidden away in the Bowery. Unfortunately, Siracusa is long gone, its special fare just a memory.

The Don dies

In prison, John Gotti died at 61 last week, the victim of cancer. The New York Times, which does not do a good job of covering New York City, did a bang up job on Mr. Gotti, with a front page story on Tuesday that captured his Brioni suits and captured a little bit of his ascent and a lot of his downfall. Tracking him to his funeral, the Times tribe found that “Only the florists outnumbered the police. Van after van pulled up at the funeral home to deliver displays so large that often only one could fit in their cargo bays. Some of the florists made as many as a dozen separate deliveries.”

The newspaper scribblers, not unlike their counterparts in broadcast TV, show a certain affinity for crime and death, a relief for them from the drudgery of everyday reporting.

And loudly flows the Don

Despite the almost sedate dinner we shared with Mr. Gotti at Siracusa, he was known as a man who liked the spotlight too much…addicted, it seems, to fame. This is reported in “The Celebrity Gangster,” by Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain, joint authors of a book about him, which appeared in the Times Op-Ed on June 13, 2002. In their eyes, he was good at strutting, but lousy at managing the mob, talking too much about his doings, all of which got recorded in FBI wiretaps. In other words, he was great theater but got himself and all sorts of colleagues sent to the big house.

We would object to this critique, however. Why should he be any different? The nineties and the eighties were all about showbiz leaders…from Clinton on down…who strutted their misdeeds and, often as not, got away with them. And it was about politicians and CEOs who watched their polls and their press clippings…instead of paying close attention to business. Why should Don John be any different?

Showbiz is not business

In this vein, we recommend a read of “The Misguided Mix-up of Celebrity and Leadership (And Why it Imperils our Institutions),” an essay by Jim Collins in the Conference Board’s 2001 Annual Report. He suggests that the best leaders, with cumulative stock returns three-times better than the stock market over the last 15 years, didn’t make the front pages and didn’t rule by charisma. He cites Darwin Smith of Kimberly Clark and David Maxwell of Fannie Mae (and several others) in this regard. Some of his heroes are very shy, indeed, but somehow they get the job done, mostly because they are determined to build great institutions based on clear standards of performance, instead of creating monuments to themselves.

All this is of tremendous interest to us as we work through our own leadership studies. In this low-growth era racked by tremendous economic volatility, CEOs lack a roadmap for sustained performance. We are now trying to identify the kinds of individuals who can navigate in a world of so many unknowns. They will be very, very different from those who came before.

A life of crime

From today’s front pages we have learned that a whole raft of people are trying to horn into John Gotti’s act…from accountants, to CEOs, to religious fanatics, etc. Everybody wants to be a celebrity criminal.

We wonder, indeed, when we can get back to old-fashioned circumspect crime. In this respect, consider the words of Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer’s astute and very comic English defense lawyer: “It is now getting on for half a century since I took to crime, and I can honestly say I haven’t regretted a single moment of it.” Rumpole likes defending criminals, and he is smitten with honest-to-gosh thieves and murderers. He has no use for white collar-criminals such as libelers, whom he finds to be a shifty lot. The trouble, it seems, with the white collar cheats and celebrity mobsters is that they are too dishonest and too lacking in substance. They are Eliot’s “Hollow Men”.

To get a little honest, fun crime, read John Mortimer’s The Third Rumpole Omnibus and find out about his discontents with editors and celebrities in “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation.”

To learn more about William Dunk Partners, visit: www.globalprovince.com/williamdunkpartners.htm